When you were a teenager, did you ever make a mistake? I’m talking about the kind of mistake that brings on an avalanche of other problems—such as being dropped from a sports team, getting suspended from school, or entering the juvenile justice system. Current research informs us that when teens get suspended or end up in court, they are more likely to drop out of school or become chronically attached to the juvenile justice system instead of learning from their mistakes. Luckily, when teenagers in Arlington County are caught for the first time with drugs or alcohol, they may be eligible to attend Second Chance, an education, diversion, and early intervention program for youth.

Funded by a two-year grant by the Arlington County Department of Human Services and The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility and facilitated by Phoenix Houses of the Mid-Atlantic, Second Chance was created through a collaborative community effort that includes students, parents, guardians, and school officials, as well as professionals from law enforcement, the judicial system, the social services, and the health and medical fields.  Their efforts were driven by results from the 2008 Arlington County Youth Behavior Risk Survey (YRBS) and by the belief that it takes an entire community to help young people mature into healthy, caring, and responsible adults.

Eligibility for attending the program as a diversion from the juvenile justice system or from school suspension is determined by the Arlington County courts or by the Arlington Public Schools. Students may also attend voluntarily.

Second Chance consists of a three-day Educational Program for students, a three-hour Parent Class, and a three-hour follow-up Booster Session for students and their parents/guardians (taught approximately 45 days later). We create a safe, supportive classroom environment so that students will feel comfortable asking questions and applying information to their own lives.

Curriculum topics include:

· The impact of substance use on family, community, and individual physical/mental health

· Legal issues that arise from substance use and how to protect basic legal rights

· Refusal skills and identification of alternative substance-free activities

· Developing an action plan to avoid substance use

We recently finished presenting the sixth session of Second Chance, which reached a total of 83 adolescents.  At this point the Second Chance program has welcomed participants from 7th to 12th grade from most of the middle schools and high schools in Arlington County. We’ve noticed that many students do not initially understand the possible serious consequences of their behaviors. Before attending Second Chance, many teens didn’t understand the Continuum of Use or how one wrong choice can bring on a flurry of negative consequences, from legal issues to lost opportunities to serious injury.  Students are often shocked when they learn how the school system or judicial system disciplines minors who are caught under the influence of or in possession of drugs and/or alcohol. For this reason, Second Chance moves slowly through our three-day curricula so that participants can make connections between behaviors and consequences.  We have been fortunate to have a police officer and a public defender join us as guest speakers, and have incorporated multiple modalities of learning in order to reach each and every student.  

Parents are often nervous when they first join Second Chance, but they soon express immense appreciation for the program. They are grateful that their children have been given a real second chance – one that arms them with accurate information and new tools to stop harmful behaviors. They are grateful to have found a place to ask questions, find referrals, and help increase their repertoire of parenting skills. 

One of the young men who completed the Second Chance program earlier this year summed up the experience very well: “You don’t just teach us about drugs and alcohol,” he said. “You teach us how to live our lives.”

Siobhan Bowler, MC; NCAC I

Program Facilitator

Second Chance Substance Abuse Program

Phoenix Houses of the Mid-Atlantic